SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Farm Aid is more than a family of musicians banding together to help the small farmer. It's also a family meal.
A key component of Farm Aid concerts - this year's is taking place Saturday in Saratoga Springs - is the food, which comes through Farm Aid's Homegrown Concessions. It was started six years ago to create new markets for family farmers.
Vendors, which include local food-service outlets, as well as national brands such as Chipotle and Amy's Organic, must meet Farm Aid's criteria for sourcing the ingredients in their food, from organic flour in the panini to free-ranging, antibiotic-free hogs on the barbecue grill.
Even the cotton candy has a family farm origin, made from maple syrup produced in the Catskills.
"Farm Aid's mission is about family farmers, and economic opportunity for family farmers is a really big priority of ours," said Glenda Yoder, associate director of Farm Aid. "We also support good farming practices and rewarding farmers for those practices. So our Homegrown criteria call for food that is sourced from family farms that meet an ecological standard, and that returns a fair price to the farmer."
Willie Nelson, Neil Young, Dave Matthews and John Mellencamp lead the star-studded lineup this year, along with Jack Johnson, Carlene Carter, Toad the Wet Sprocket and about 10 other artists.
The annual concert is the chief moneymaker for the Farm Aid organization Nelson co-founded in 1985 and leads as president. The beneficiaries of the organization's year-round efforts are always featured prominently at the shows, with a Homegrown Village providing concert-goers a chance to meet local farmers, learn agrarian skills, and eat food from vendors who meet strict criteria set by Farm Aid.
"We talk about saving the family farmer, but the fact is, it's the family farmer who will save us all," Nelson said at a media event before the gates opened at noon Saturday.
Matthews gave a shout-out to activists wearing anti-fracking T-shirts at the media event, which was also open to many farmers, vendors and volunteers. "Don't frack our farmlands," Matthew said, to loud applause. Several anti-fracking groups from New York and Pennsylvania had a booth at the event, calling for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to continue the state's moratorium on shale gas development that began in 2008.
This year the village was set up on the expansive lawns of the state park surrounding the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. The action there got going before the 10-hour concert.
The village offered plenty of activities to help people get in touch with their inner farmer. There's a daylong group potato-stamp art project; workshops on making butter, bacon, cheese, lemon vinegar and llama wool bracelets; and a demonstration of how to grow shiitake mushrooms on logs in your own backyard.
Joshua Cummings of Hartford, N.Y., was biting into a snappy grilled bratwurst as he walked among the vendors' tents. "I want to know where my food came from and what went into it," he said, adding that farm-fresh food also tastes better.
Will Pouch, owner of the Esperanto restaurant in Saratoga Springs, had to modify his menu for his Farm Aid booth to meet the organization's requirements for all organic and humane-raised food.
"They have very exacting standards that made me look at my menu and sources," Pouch said. He used organic chicken and farm-ground flour in his doughboys for the event, which increased his ingredient cost by two- or threefold, he said.
"I won't change all my restaurant menu items, though, because many of my customers can't afford the higher prices," Pouch said. "But I'll be adding more locally sourced items to the specials board."
The Farm Aid organization has raised more than $43 million since 1985 to support programs that help small family farms, expand the Good Food Movement and promote locally grown food. Farm Aid has made grants of more than $2.5 million in the Northeast during the past 28 years, according to the organization.
Roger Allison, who started Patchwork Family Farms in Columbia, Mo., with a Farm Aid grant 20 years ago, said Farm Aid has been a lifesaver for the family farmers in his organization who raise hogs in a natural way, unconfined, without antibiotics.
"Thank god for Willie Nelson and Farm Aid," Allison said at Saratoga after driving 23 hours to bring his truckload of savory meats. "It has really instilled hope in independent family farms all across the United States. We love Willie. Willie has helped us out."